As a rule I’m not a name dropper. The subject of mentors requires me to be one. Over the years, other than my formal education in Journalism, no one ever taught me to write a novel. I learned on my own by purchasing books on the subject, trial and error, and of course mirroring my mentors.
Some of my mentors were in the flesh. Alive and willing to help me; face to face. Edward Abbey (the Monkey Wrench Gang), John Nichols (the Milagro Beanfield War), Werner Egli (BLUES FOR LILLY,DELGADO, plus 60 more), Jack Schaeffer (Shane & Monte Walsh), Tom Robbins (Another Roadside Attraction), and Michael Blake (Dances With Wolves, Indian Yell).
Some like Wallace Stenger, Louis L’amour, Larry McMurtry, Morris West, and Carl Haasen; authors who were alive during my early career influenced me greatly.
Other mentors had passed before my time; Jack London, Ernest Hemmingway, John Steinbeck, and Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).
Will Rogers also played a significant role in my development as a writer and a human being. His primary advice -- don’t take life too seriously, (an echo of my dad’s voice) has proved to be the most valuable advice of all – for life!
Of all the writers I’ve met or known, I believe Ed Abbey influenced me the most. (Monkey Wrench Gang – Desert Solitaire and a ton of others)
We spent a lot of time together when I was in southern Arizona. We were on opposite poles on just about every subject. When we met, I was a rancher – he hated ranchers. I was a businessman – he wasn’t fond of them either. I disliked tree-huggers – he was the inspiration behind EARTH FIRST. But we both wrote novels. Ed was at the top of his game; I was just beginning.
One day Ed and I were having a few drinks in a bar in Tucson. We were arguing politics. Eventually I was able to segue to writing. OIL SPILL had been published and was failing miserably. I had just finished my first draft of PARTNERS.
Here’s part of our conversation. I placed his sage advice in ALL CAPS.
“In your opinion, Ed, what is the lowest common denominator to writing a successful novel? What’s your ‘ONE SENTENCE’ advice for someone like me?”
He laughed and sipped the last of his beer. “Stay with your cows and horses. Writing is a dirty life; fulfilling but dirty!”
“It’s always been my dream,” I replied. “To live anyplace in the world and make a living; to be independent and to make a difference…”
“Hatting, you’re a fool. A likable fool, yet still a fool. Here’s what I suggest. You can either enroll in my creative writing class at the U of A or buy the house a round to learn the answer -- your choice.”
I looked around the ratty bar. It was only the two of us. “Ed, we’re the only ones in here. I’ll buy a round -- in fact let me pay the whole tab; including lunch.”
That $27.00 bar tab was the cheapest and most valuable advice I’d ever received about writing.
“HATTING, WRITE EXACTLY THE WAY YOU SPEAK. IF YOU TRY TO SOUND DIFFERENT THAN WHAT YOU ARE -- FAILURE IS YOUR FUTURE.”
I took that advice and began reading my manuscripts out loud. Recently I went back and looked at my two big novels, THE LAST FRUIT STAND ON GUAM and ALASKA BE DAMNED. The contrast in the writing is as separate as the lives I was leading during the rewrites. It shows in my work. That’s when you have to adhere to your voice. Not the original manuscript…the rewrites!
THE LAST FRUIT STAND ON GUAM was written and polished while I was working in Alaska as a commercial fisherman. It reflects the bawdy, blue collar prose that was prevalent in my chosen adventure.
Skid McMasters spoke three words of Japanese; Ohayo, konnichiwa, and ichiban. Serving a dozen or more young Japanese women, one might expect a vendor who did daily business with Japanese tourists to expand his Nipponese vocabulary, but Skid couldn't care less. He said good morning (Ohayo), or good afternoon (konnichiwa), pointed to the second most attractive woman in a group (single Japanese women on holiday always traveled in groups) and indicated she was Number One (ichiban), a vanity fib deliberately planned to provoke jealousy within the group.
On average, at least two room keys were discretely left amongst the papaya, breadfruit, mangoes, rose apples, bananas, sugar cane, guavas, oranges, limes, lemons, coconuts, plantain, and avocados. One room key from his designated ichiban, and another from the most desirable; the real number one. Predictably, four sales were made to each group, with a sizable tip imparted by the most attractive woman. From mid-morning until late afternoon, Skid waited on sixty to eighty groups, bagging their fruit, taking their money, and saving their keys; a daily routine for Skid. Although McMasters didn’t completely comprehend this carnal anomaly, he accepted the Asian ladies’ affections without hesitation. Three years of this daily drill spoke volumes about his sexual stamina; the overactive libido that had caused him untold problems over the years was a veritable asset on this small Central Pacific Island, called Guam.
ALASKA BE DAMNED was started in Alaska, the first draft was completed while building my cabin in Northern Arizona, and polished after I moved to Seattle and started a business. It’s obvious my city-business nomenclature crept into the manuscript.
From our vista, we witnessed the havoc being wreaked by Mother Nature. Trees and shrubs were permanently bent or uprooted. High on the beach, a number of seals and sea lions had sought shelter from the fierce environment. As predicted, the wind was blowing directly out of the north, accelerating with each prolonged gust. It occurred to me how irrelevant our typical daily problems appear when compared with these kinds of immutable forces. Will the stock market remain bullish? Will we ever see three dollar a pound Kings again? Should we paint the house to please our neighbors? Do these shoes go well with this dress? Should I call the Coasties?
Meg took my arm and leaned against me. It was difficult to breathe, let alone talk. We turned and looked west toward where the Intrepid had ceased to be a boat. Chatham Strait was breathtaking. Developing some synch, the waves were compounding, with one wave breaking over another breaking wave, reaching heights of up to sixty feet.
The author is the same, the stories are original, but the polished product is different. Since I’ve been writing back-stories on all of my work for this blog, I've become aware of the significant differences in all twelve of my novels and six screenplays. It seems like eighteen authors penned my work. Thanks, Ed.
Over the next several months I will reflect on how all my other mentors have fashioned my writing; novels and screenplays.